Not much connects optometry, fashion for the elderly and linguistics, but Kavita Parmar has done them all. Now the award-winning entrepreneur tells Steve Dyson why she wants a six-month holiday.
Kavita Parmar’s dream is to have what she calls a “flip-flop” lifestyle – spending half the year working, and the other half on a beach. But having taken just five days’ holiday last year, she admits she’s a long way from living that dream. And when the 39-year-old entrepreneur sits down to talk, it’s soon obvious why: her mind is always on the next challenge, working out how she can continue what she’s doing but also launch something completely different.
Parmar’s busy approach to life started as a teenager back in her home town of Leicester, when she was first thinking about careers. Her mum was a banker, her dad an accountant, and so her first idea was to become an architect. But as she watched the global property slump, she quickly changed her mind and decided to become an optician instead.
She studied at City, University of London and started work in optometry in 2001, but before long came up with her first business idea. She’d been running regular clinics in residential nursing homes for the elderly, often those suffering from dementia. She noticed how these residents were often given scruffy clothes to wear, because of their physical and memory problems.
“All these old people were wearing things like tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts, and I saw how distressed they were,” recalls Parmar. “They talked about the loss of independence, and how they had previously been so proud of how they looked. One old chap told me: ‘I used to love wearing a shirt and tie, but now I can’t because of my arthritis’.
“I designed a range of clothing that promoted independence, enabling them to dress themselves but still feel proud of how they looked. Things like shirts and bras with magnetic fastenings, open-backed clothing that was still smart.”
The elderly residents loved the new clothing, and before long Parmar was designing, producing and supplying her Adaptawear range across the UK. By this stage, she was living in Birmingham with her husband, Tiku Chauhan, and so based her design studio and warehouse in the inner-city suburb of Tyseley, outsourcing manufacturing to Bulgaria and China. She ran the company from 2004 to 2009, reaching annual revenues of more than £500,000 and employing three staff, before one of her suppliers said “I love your clothing – if you want to sell, I’ll buy it”.
Parmar was nearly nine-months pregnant at the time and was looking for some work-life balance as a new parent, so she cheekily told the supplier “Make me an offer”. It did, and she sold both Adaptawear and the warehouse property for six-figure sums.
She returned to optometry, working as a locum while her daughter, Lana, now aged seven, and her son, Sai, now six, were very young. But she still had that entrepreneurial flair bubbling away inside her, and was soon on the look-out for another business of her own.
Parmar’s desires matched those of her husband: he was working in finance at Pendragon but “wanted to get out of the rat race”. They put their thinking together and, in 2013, bought a company called Express Interpreting from a family friend who was retiring. Within a year, they’d rebranded the company as Word 360, and expanded its expertise from what was mainly interpreting for courts and hospitals to a full translation service for the business and education sectors. They relocated from Handsworth to Five Ways near the city centre, and saw revenues steadily rise from around £500,000 in 2013 to more than £1.2m in 2016, with staffing growing from two to ten.
“The backbone of the original business was public sector,” says Parmar, “as the previous owners had recognised the need for interpreting for courts, hospitals and councils. We thought this was pretty good as a basis, and that we just needed to sort out the sales and marketing to make it a winner.
“We began with a tendering approach in the public sector across the UK, which had around a 20% hit rate for contracts worth anything between £100,000 and £500,000. But this national approach didn’t really work, so we focused on the West Midlands where we were already a well-known interpreting agency.”
Parmar joined the Asian Business Chamber of Commerce in Birmingham to help her networking, and started to build “really good relationships”. She also studied on the Goldman Sachs’ small business leaders programme at Aston Business School, which she said was crucial for developing a direction for the company.
“We recognised that our offering of wider translation services to the higher education and business sectors could become our unique selling point, and so we grew our sales and marketing to focus on those areas,” she explains. “We hired dedicated project managers who could deliver translation services for all sorts of projects, from e-learning materials to contracts, from websites to marketing and public relations agencies.
“We still do almost all the hospitals in Birmingham and other public sector work, but whereas this was 70% of the old business, it’s now just 30%. The other 70% is now businesses and third-sector organisations.”
Parmar herself speaks “pretty fluent” Gujarati as well as English, but insists that she’s “no linguist”. Instead, Word 360 can call on the skills of more than 5,000 freelance linguists in its network, between them speaking more than 250 languages and dialects. It sounds like a lot of people to deal with, but she explains that the business promises the very best for all sectors, which not only means getting the right linguist but also one who knows the relevant sector.
“It might be someone who speaks Thai in the legal sector,” she explains. “Or French in the marketing world, or Japanese in the car industry. We need that repertoire so that we can respond quickly and accurately.
“We’re a recruitment company if you like, offering a full range of experts to translate and interpret. Or sometimes a client will need voice-over artists, or transcribers. While they’re freelance, we’re very much a people company, and we even have our own language school, providing bespoke training for our interpreters – always seeking to upskill them.”
While Word 360’s linguists are sub-contracted, its staff look after the finance, scheduling, project management, sales and marketing, and all the other operational needs that come from having around 150 clients.
As well as the hospitals, courts and colleges, other clients range from a tiny giftware company manufacturing in a back street of Bearwood but exporting to 20 countries through to giants such as engineering firm Arup, make-up brand Charlotte Tilbury, distributors Parcelforce and DPD, and other big names like Biffa, Sertec and Yale. Word 360 even handled the languages behind the recent takeover of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club.
“The range of clients provide the challenges that drive me,” says Parmar. “And I think any entrepreneur constantly needs to challenge themselves, to be out of their comfort zone. That’s the arena I enjoy. I’ve been an optician, a fashion designer and a linguist, all of which require very different skills.
“But, in other respects, it’s the same. It’s about leading a business. Being determined. Growing a business. And the success is down to personal focus, determination and teamwork.”
That word “teamwork” brings Parmar onto the role of her husband, Tiku Chauhan, aged 45. The pair, who now live in Moseley, Birmingham, are both Hindus from families of Indian backgrounds. “It’s Tiku and me in the business together,” she says. “That brings its own challenges, of course. But as a business, our ‘rock’ and ‘whirlwind’ combination works. Tiku is the management side, the organisation, operations and finance. He’s the rock. Whereas I’m the sales, development, blue-sky thinking, what we need to drive it forward. I’m the whirlwind.”
Looking ahead, Parmar claims to want to be able to step out of the business in five years’ time, and to have the right management team in place to accomplish that.
“A work-life balance is so important,” she says. “As an entrepreneur, your business is your baby. It becomes an addiction, because you are the primary force, driving it forward. Ideally, I want to try to develop the right person and team for me to get that work-life balance.
“As a start-up, it’s not so easy to get that. But taking over a business like we’ve done is a lot easier than starting one, and if you don’t look after yourself it doesn’t matter how much you earn. So, my life goal by 2022 is a flip-flop lifestyle – that’s half the year on a beach. I’m not there yet and only had five days off in the whole of 2016. But that’s my aim.”
But then, within seconds of talking about six-month holidays, Parmar’s at it again – planning her next ventures: “I want to focus on internationalising the business – taking it to the Middle East, and possibly the United States. Back in 2014, I created my own software with a Romanian partner to automate the delivery of language services in the public sector. I want to commercialise that next.”
It seems that turning the flip-flop dream into reality will be Parmar’s hardest challenge.